Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

30.5.11

Song of the month (May), saccadic rhythms, and a persistent fly.

The font of all modern wisdom, the semi-readable* Wikipedia, tells me that this song has been recorded 2600 times. That’s not surprising. It was so beautiful that every singer with an ego had to do it.

But you never have heard this version, recorded by iconic 1960s British band the Zombies who, powered by psychedelia, mellotron and sheer musical ability, later made a concept album arguably superior to the vastly overrated Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. All that and a spelling error in its title.

Of course, I’m making a huge presumption that you have never heard it. The Zombies' take on Summertime might be your favourite recording of all time.
Listen and, as Christopher Lawrence sued to say, swoon.

It’s summertime,
And the livin' is easy

The fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high


Your daddy's rich
And your mamma’s good lookin’

Won’t you hush pretty baby
Don't you cry



One of these mornings
You're going to wake up singing

Then you’re gonna spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky


But ‘til that morning
Ain’t nothin’, nothin’ gonna harm you

With your mummy and daddy there standin' by


Summertime (music George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin; lyrics DuBose Heyward)
From the album Begin Here
Decca, 1965

*

It was an aria. Then it was jazz and blues and roots. Hell, it’s a lullaby and as enchanting as you’ll find. I could have used it last night at three in the morning.

*

*Now this is interesting. As a frequent Wikipedia visitor, I find the site wearisome in the extreme thanks to the sheer length of its text lines. I asked Wikipedia what it had to say about readability. It reports:
The Readability of Print Unit at the Royal College of Art under Professor Herbert Spencer with Brian Coe and Linda Reynolds[21] did important work in this area and was one of the centres that revealed the importance of the saccadic rhythm of eye movement for readability—in particular, the ability to take in (i.e., recognise the meaning of groups of) around three words at once and the physiognomy of the eye, which means the eye tires if the line required more than 3 or 4 of these saccadic jumps. More than this is found to introduce strain and errors in reading (e.g. Doubling).
Indeed. Wikipedia’s lines run up to - and probably exceed - an eye-popping 28 words. Of course, the fly in my eye doesn't help:

My fly was a 'posterior vitreous detachment', and it was moving around inside my eye and the doctor said it would move around inside my eye for the rest of my life and not to worry about it. He said that I wouldn't even see it after six weeks, because my brain would get sick of pointing it out to me.

My brain has not tired of pointing it out to me, and that was more than three years ago.

26.5.11

Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid?

Pasta is a cliché, a bore, a culinary banality on a million restaurant menus. How does it go? Bolognese. Carbonara. Alfredo. Marinara. Pescatora. Napolitana. Puttanesca. Arrabbiata. Arrabbiata? That means angry.

Don’t get angry, get even. Tell the kids, or your husband or your wife or your brother or your sister or your mother you are serving them pasta with yogurt tonight and watch their reaction. Pasta with yogurt?

Yes. Pasta with yogurt. Plain, tart yogurt with the sting of garlic and the crunch of parsley and the yielding texture of chickpeas and the bite of fresh ground black pepper. You’ll never order spaghetti napolitana again, or buy one of those supermarket jars with a photo of a wizened Italian on the label (or Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid for that matter, I can't remember which) containing sauce made in a hundred gallon vat in Dandenong one night two years ago.

This recipe is dead easy and you don’t even have to cook the sauce.

Pasta with yogurt, garlic and chickpeas.

You can use any pasta with this but short works better. I used rigatoni.

Cook pasta until done. While cooking pasta, dice half a cucumber and chop a clove of garlic finely and then fold these through a cup of plain yogurt. Use Greek yogurt for a creamier result.

Open a can of chickpeas and warm them through in their fluid.

Drain pasta when it is done. Drain the chickpeas. Return both to one pan to which you have added a dash of good olive oil. Now fold the yogurt mixture through on low heat for mere seconds.

Transfer immediately to serving bowls. Dust with ground pepper and sprinkle finely chopped parsley.

Enjoy with very fresh, very soft Turkish bread and a glass of any white wine that isn’t too acidic (most are these days) and isn’t too cold. Cold wine kills your palate, if it hasn’t already been dulled by a million clichéd Italian restaurant menus.

23.5.11

City of Yarra diners to save the world one blanket at a time.

National Geographic reports that due to the sheer scale of China's growth, its carbon output will continue to soar until at least 2030 before less polluting technology starts to cut in:
So for the time being, China's carbon emissions will continue to soar. I talked with dozens of energy experts, and not one of them predicted emissions would peak before 2030. Is there anything that could move that 2030 date significantly forward? I asked one expert in charge of a clean-energy program. "Everyone's looking, and no one is seeing anything," he said.
No problem: Yarra Council to the rescue of world pollution. The council wants to tax - or ban - gas heaters at outdoor cafes:
(e) the amount collected in the coming year be used to subsidise/provide blankets (preferably Fair Trade blankets) for patron use in outdoor dining areas with no outdoor heaters, with the mechanism for their fair distribution to all interested businesses to be determined by officers.
But can I have a heater if I order a cold salad? Or sushi?

19.5.11

The shop that wasn't there.

It was early afternoon on a cold Tuesday in May. I was striding purposefully through town as usual after yet another speedy yet satisfying lunch (the bento box comprising fruit, vegetables, teriyaki beef, tofu, rice flecked with seaweed, pickled ginger, wasabi, miso) at Don Don in Swanston Street where the food is always fast and the music is always Tom Jones when two old dears stopped me in my tracks in Little Collins Street. This often happens. I must look like a signpost. Not that I mind. I like helping old ladies. I’m always reaching things down from the higher shelves in the supermarket for people.

They looked like they’d just got off the train from Heyington or Camberwell or Mont Albert. ‘Can you direct us to Batman Records?’ they asked, and smiled at me in that vacantly patient way that old dears do when they have asked a question and are trying not to look demanding as they wait politely for an answer. Must be a generational thing.

I told them, sadly, that Batman Records closed many years ago. They wandered off. I hoped they didn’t start looking for McGill’s instead.

17.5.11

Apple pancakes.

Tom eats several a day. William will nibble one if he is very hungry. Their current favourite is the Royal Gala, which sounds like a Melbourne Cup winner from the 1970s, but is a sweet, yellow- and red-skinned cultigen made in the 1970s from a sport of the Gala apple, itself a clonally propagated fruit developed in the 1930s across the ditch in New Zealand. And that's the end of that paragraph.

At upwards of $4 a kilo, we retain the merely nibbled ones when a refrigerator is handy. These are chopped and stewed, or grated for bircher muesli, or cut into an apple pie; and I know which I'd prefer, although bircher muesli is not all that bad if you drown it in mango flavoured yogurt. Or cream.

The other day I grated a Royal Gala and folded it through a batter (flour - half self-raising and half plain - an egg and three-quarters of a cup of milk), and fried the batter in a non-stick pan, shaking it gently over a small amount of butter, and turned the resulting pancakes out onto plates and melted a little butter over them and dusted them with a little caster sugar.

The grated apple disappeared into the texture and was no longer apparent and the boys sat down for lunch. Pass the maple syrup, they said. I passed the maple syrup.

16.5.11

The more you post, the more you wonder about the possibility of Blogger failing. It doesn’t alarm me especially, but it might have a year ago when I was in the final stages of editing a book entirely on blogger. It was a great way to do it. Fifteen chapters, each in its own post and edited at will. Then each emailed off to the publisher, who turned them into 500 pages of text.

Blogger stuttered on Friday, offering read-only mode before removing the top post, a kind of brain surgery in which Blogger mechanics had delved into eighty billion pieces of HTML. The top post was replaced later minus any comments that might have been delivered earlier.

It’s a funny way to write a diary. I started this blog in 2003 but my hand-written diaries go back to 1970, consisting for years of single-word or -sentence entries documenting a pedestrian life.

10.5.11

I wonder if Sophia ever told Leo Tolstoy to limit something he was writing to 140 characters.

9.5.11

R.I.P. Lionel Rose. Story here.

5.5.11

The fish that time forgot.

Smoked cod is still available in the fish section of the deli at the supermarket. You just don’t notice it any more. It’s the only fish that has been stocked continuously since the 1950s. I never see anyone buy it. People take numbers and line up for banana prawns and Tasmanian Atlantic salmon and ling and oysters and scallops and that rendered substance they call crab stick, but never the cod.

Further, I’ve never seen smoked cod served outside my own kitchen. It is the world’s only food never to have been served in a restaurant. Nor have I ever encountered smoked cod at a dinner party. Plenty of other smoke; smoked salmon, smoked ricotta, smoked beef, smoked gruyère, smoked eel, and in the old days, smoke itself in a couple of varieties; but smoked cod, no. Most tellingly, my mother, who in 1968, when she had seven children at home aged from brand new to seventeen and used to buy several kilograms of the stuff she called 'Cape Cod' weekly, has not served smoked cod at her table since 1987. Unless she’s doing it covertly.

All of which is a shame, because smoked cod makes an inexpensive, tasty dish that fills the house with a delicious aroma.

Smoked cod and white sauce.

Place two cups of milk in a pan. Add two pieces of smoked cod, a few peppercorns and some snipped parsley stalks. Keep the leaves to add later. Bring almost to a boil then turn down heat immediately. Cook gently for fifteen minutes then carefully remove fish and keep warm. Retain milk for the sauce.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in another pan. Add two tablespoons of flour and stir in, off the heat, until combined. Return to flame. Add the retained milk, slowly. Stir. Add half an onion, very finely chopped. Stir. Add a tablespoon of very finely chopped parsley. All going well, the sauce will thicken. You might need to add more milk. (Note: traditionally a thinner sauce was used for this dish when served around Easter. Play around with quantities to achieve the consistency you prefer. Don’t add salt. Don’t add garlic. There’s enough flavour in the fish. You want a bland sauce for contrast. The parsley is for texture and visual appeal. Even the onion is optional.)

Serve fish, covered in parsley sauce, with green beans and quartered potatoes that have been boiled to the point where they are almost breaking down, like old weathered hills (the way they were served as an accompaniment to the iconic cabbage soup at the gone but not forgotten Scheherezade café in Acland Street). Dust the potatoes with more finely chopped parsley and a little butter.

Serve this at your next dinner party and no-one will know what to drink with it. In fact, no-one will even know what it is.

3.5.11

Best in show.

Ten o’clock on a cool Sunday morning. The sun was still behind the clouds and there was dew on the grass, along with seventy French cars.

What was I doing at the French Car Festival? I felt like a traitor as I parked the 940 under an oak tree beside the road that runs through the grounds of the park, got out, poked my eye on an oak twig, helped the children out, shut the doors, left the car and walked towards the gate where a lady with a PCCV logo on her coat was selling entry tickets. Then on to the greensward where sat twenty or more Citroens, about a dozen Renaults, perhaps twice the number of Peugeots, a few Simca Vedettes, and a couple of oddities, if you allow that all French cars are not oddities. People were poring over open bonnets and gazing at engines, which in the case of some of the Renaults, was at the other end of the car.

The last time I saw this many French cars in one place was in the underground car park outside Baillieu library at Melbourne University in the 1970s. All the academics were Francophiles and often wore berets and smoked Gauloises while they drove their buttercup yellow Renault 16s and burnt orange Peugeot 504s and electric blue Citroen DS21s into Carlton along Johnson Street from Kew. In those days there were more Renaults and Peugeots in the inner suburbs than Holdens or Fords, and they all had bumper stickers reading Shame Fraser Shame or Uranium? No Thank You or We Want Gough or Frodo Lives. All the same message when you looked back on it.

Now, here were the survivors forty years later, on safe ground in a park in Balwyn on a quiet Sunday morning. Some of their engines were running, and it sounded like the Quai des Orfèvres late in the afternoon, just before they open the Calvados bottles in the bars. Kind of old and tired and happy, with a buzz of anticipation.

I had always wanted a French car. They were comfortable and different and suitable for city use and solid enough for long distance touring and they had tall clear glass so you could make eye contact with other drivers and they came in happy colours and they had happy faces. These days, cars are mostly black and sharp and aggressive and purpose-built for road rage. You could never get angry with someone driving a Renault 8.

The best car in the show was this black Peugeot 403 with red leather interior, displayed with its original sales docket. It was delivered new to a Mrs someone-or-other who lived in The Avenue, Parkville on 15 March 1957, making the car 18 days older than me. It was not for sale. I might have left the 940 under the oak tree.

Disclosure: the writer owns an original Peugeot exactly the same as this one. In original condition.